Celebrate April Fools Day Like The French do in France: Poisson D’avril

In addition to the hot air balloon, the sexy little black dress and photography, the French may have inadvertently invented April Fools’ day. Here’s what you need to know about this fishy day in France.

April Fools day in France

April fools day just might be one of the most widely recognized non-religious holidays in the Western world.

Even the French, known for fashion, food and sophistication love to play pranks and jokes on unsuspecting friends on April 1st.  But in France, there’s one traditional prank that not many other countries have, and it involves a fish. 

Photo of French school boy putting paper fish on back of his friend

Photo by Vallet, Marcelle in Villeurbanne (Rhône) around the ’40s or50’s

1) How do you say April Fools day in French?

In France, April 1st is called “Poisson d’Avril” pronounced [PWAH-Sone DAH-Vril], which literally means “April Fish.” The literal translation of April fools day to French is”le dupe d’avril”, but no one ever says that in France. 

 Stick around to the end of this article to find out why it’s called “April Fish” instead of April fools like it is in English.

Why is April first called April Fish 'Poisson d'avril' in France?

2) How is April Fools day celebrated in France today (modern times)? 

The fish on the back prank!

A common prank, especially among school-aged children, is to draw or print out a fish and stick it to the back of unsuspecting victims. Once the unfortunate fool discovers the fish taped to their back, the kids have a good yuck and scurry away, shouting “Poisson d’avril, Poisson d’aviril.”

At least that’s what my daughter and her friends do to me. But not before I can do it to them because I can’t let them have all the fun. 

On April fools day, kids in France like to tape a paper fish to the backs of their friends as a prank

Adults and Even businesses in France play pranks and hoaxes:

 It’s not just kids who love pranking their friends and parents. Adults like to get in on the action too. From simple pranks on friends, family and co-workers to elaborate fake news hoaxes and marketing pranks.

photo of man with a poisson d'avril on his back in Paris 1972

April 1st, 1972 in Paris. Rue des Archives/Credit ©Rue des Archives/AGIP

  • In 2018, the news outlet Nice-Matin published an April fools day hoax article about the famous blue chairs along the beautiful “Promenade des Anglais” stating that they were replaced by mundane yellow chairs.
  • In 2017, news outlet Var-Matin played an especially cruel hoax on April first by reporting that the traditional French game of Boules would be banned.
  • Even RATP, the French public transport network, gets in on the act by renaming some of Paris metro stations using wordplay and puns. For instance, RATP renamed the station “Opéra” to “Apéro,” which means appetizer.”Télégraphe” metro station became “#Tweet” and “Quatre Septembre” became “1er Avril”. And to ensure the pranks get some excellent marketing and publicity, RATP uses the hashtag #Stationdavril
Train station Jaurès name changed as part of an April fools day prank

j’aurais and Jaurès are pronounced the same. The metro sign above reads, “If I had known, I would not have come,” a wordplay on Jaurès the name of the station and J’aurais “would have.”

4) How was French April Fools day (Poisson d’Avril) celebrated in the past?

At the beginning of the twentieth century, people in France used to send adorably comical postcards on April 1st. The cards usually wished friends and family good fortune, love, friendship and or happiness! A tradition that isn’t so popular today. 

A vintage poisson d'avril post card from France

Old post card people used to send for April fools day in France

Old post card people used to send for April fools day in France

 Who invented April Fools Day and the tradition of April 1st pranks?

Although different cultures have celebrated April Fools’ Day for several centuries, its exact origins remain a mystery. There is, however, one theory that stands out from the rest.

5) April Fools Day may have been invented in France around the 1600s.

Many historians believe playing pranks and tricking people on April first can be traced back to “Le Grand Tour De France” in 1564 and French King Charles the IX.

Le Grand Tour De France:

Catherine de Medicis wanted her son, King Charles, the IX of France, to get to know his kingdom, so she arranged “Le grand tour de France.” 

For two years, beginning January of 1564 through May 1st, 1566, King Charles IX, his mother and an entourage of nearly 2000 people travelled over 400 kilometres through some of the most remote border areas of the French kingdom.

Map of the Grand tour around French kindgom: Charles IX

April 1st was one of several New Years dates before the Gregorian Calendar

Various diocese scattered across the French kingdom celebrated the New Year on different dates, which wasn’t unusual at the time. Throughout most of recorded history, the majority of cultures used different dates that were central to their lives or dates tied to religion. 

For example, the Diocese in Savoie France celebrated New year on Christmas day. Other regions celebrated on the 1st of March or Easter Sunday (which is a moveable date). The most popular or most celebrated New years’ date at that time was the 25th of March, the Feast of the Annunciation. However, because it landed during a holy week, the actual festivities didn’t begin until the first of April.

 

You might be interested in reading about 15 fun French New Year’s Eve Traditions In France

King Charges wanted to standardize the New Years date

Fed up with the multiple New Year dates, which was confusing and caused an administrative fiasco, King Charles IX issued the  (Édit de Roussillon) on August 9th, 1564. It decreed that the New Year would begin on January 1st throughout the entire French Kingdom. 

But France wasn’t the first to adopt this date. At the time, the German Emperor had already fixed January 1st as the date of the New year. 

It wasn’t until the Catholic Pope Gregory XIII introduced his Gregorian calendar (the same one we all use today) that the change in New Years date slowly start to take hold of the western world. 

6) French peasants and farmers may have started the tradition of playing pranks:

Even though the French King and the pope switched over to the Gregorian calendar, many French peasants continued to celebrate New Years on the old dates, especially April 1st.

Either because they didn’t want to switch or because they weren’t aware of the change to January 1st. 

News travelled slowly back then. 

One theory as to why pranks play such a significant role on April first dates back to Medieval times when people would visit friends, family and neighbours and give gifts or tithes for the April 1st New Year.
After King Charles IX switched to the newly decreed January 1st New Year’s date, some French peasants ridiculed, teased and tried to confuse late adopters who clung to the old April 1st date. They would drop in, sometimes bringing fake gag New Year gifts.
 

You might be interested in reading about Are these 15 French New Years Eve Foods Too Weird For You To Eat?

7) Why do French people call April First, “April Fish?”

There are many theories as to how the fish became the symbol of April fools day in France (and a few other countries), but these are the ones I know about.

One theory as to why April first is called “April Fish” in France has to do with fishermen. Historically, fishermen were prohibited from fishing during April because it was the breeding period of fish. Some people would give these poor fishermen friends a fake fish as a funny prank. 

Another plausible explanation is that since most of Europe celebrated the New year during Lent, a period where people were only allowed to eat fish, people gave fish as gifts for new years.

April Fools Day Today

While the story of April fools day starting in France is just one of many legends, we may never know for sure how it really started. However, it’s clear that it’s here to stay.

Currently, playing pranks on April 1st is celebrated in many countries around the world, including Switzerland, Denmark, Italy, Canada, the UK and more. Each with their own little idiosyncrasies.

But France, Italy and the French-speaking province of Quebec Canada are the only countries that call this day April Fish and have the custom of sticking paper fish on the backs as a prank.

One last thing. If you’re ever in France on April first, keep your eye out for fish-shaped chocolates sold in stores through Easter.

April Fools! Or is it?